THE BLOG

Two Years on From UN Report on North Korea's Crimes Against Humanity, It's Time to Act

22/02/2016 12:18 | Updated 21 February 2017

Two years ago today, the United Nations published the most authoritative and comprehensive analysis of the world's most closed, and most cruel, regime: North Korea. The report, the result of a year-long Commission of Inquiry chaired by the much respected former Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirby concluded that "the gravity, scale and nature" of the appalling human rights violations in North Korea "reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world".

The litany of abuses amount to crimes against humanity, and should lead to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the UN inquiry concluded.

More recently the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, former Indonesian attorney-general Marzuki Darusman, called on the international community to act. It is, he said, "now imperative to pursue criminal responsibility" of the North Korean leadership, in addition to increasing political pressure on the regime. "Not much has changed in the country almost two years after the report of the Commission of Inquiry," he added.

The day before Mr Darusman's statement, the European Parliament passed a resolution stating that it "is convinced that the time has come for the international community to take concrete action to end the perpetrators' impunity" and "demands that those most responsible for the crimes against humanity committed ... be held accountable, be brought before the International Criminal Court and be subject to targeted sanctions".

North Korea's crimes against humanity, says the European Parliament, "have been taking place for far too long under the observing eyes of the international community".

The same day, in the House of Lords in Britain, North Korea's human rights crisis came under renewed attention. Introducing a debate, Lord Alton, a tireless campaigner on human rights and Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, who has visited the country four times, described Kim Jong-un's murder of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, other senior officials, and his vice-premier Choe Yong-gon. "Kim Jong-un knew these men well, but that did not save their lives.

In this reign of terror, killing those who are not part of your circle is even less of an issue," said Lord Alton. He described "the purges, the reign of terror, the falsifying of history, the show trials, the network of gulags - where an estimated 200,000 people are incarcerated - the 400,000 said to have died in the prison camps in the last 30 years, and the attempts to obliterate religious belief and all political dissent".

The brutal regime in North Korea "ruthlessly crushes dissent, and through its policy of guilt by association, collective punishment and the execution of men like Jang is trying to ensure that there is no Kim Dae-jung, Lech Walesa or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi able to become a focal point for opposition". North Korea, Lord Alton concluded, "is in breach of pretty well all of the 30 articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

So two years on from the UN's report, where have we got to? A UN office has opened in Seoul, as recommended by the inquiry, to continue the vital work of documenting abuses so that one day the evidence can be used in a prosecution of the regime's leaders.

But as to the key recommendation to refer the case to the ICC, there is no prospect of the UN Security Council taking action as it is known that China and Russia have made public their objection to it.

There are, however, two things we can do. The first is to continue to keep the threat of an ICC referral on the table, and in the meantime to continue to build up international support. As the North Korean regime continues human rights abuses on a grand scale we believe China and Russia will realise they have exhausted the quiet approach with the North Korean regime and would no longer oppose an ICC referral.

It is obvious that China is understandably extremely concerned about any potential outbreak of uncontrolled instability on its borders. But it is also completely opposed to the nuclearization of North Korea and to be fair it does work behind the scenes to restrain the North Korean regime.

The other step that should be pursued is the idea of an informal public tribunal - of the kind that has been held for Vietnam, Iran and the so-called Japanese 'comfort women'.

To persuade some retired senior judges from the five countries that make up the permanent members of the Security Council, to volunteer their time to preside over such a tribunal would not be difficult. To persuade people - North Koreans who have escaped and international human rights experts who have documented violations - to appear as witnesses would not be difficult. It wouldn't require government support, and it would be a way of further shining a spotlight on the darkest corner of the world and further ratcheting up the pressure.

There are at the same time other steps we should be taking. Breaking the regime's information blockade, ensuring that we challenge the diet of propaganda on which the North Korean people are raised, through radio broadcasts, smuggling of USB sticks full of information and entertainment, as well as cultural and academic exchanges of various kinds, are all vital. The BBC World Service's plan for a Korean language broadcast is long overdue. Every creative tool to prise open the world's most closed country should be used.

There is, however, one thing that we simply must not do, especially when we know what we know now from the UN's own Commission of Inquiry, and that is to listen to the surprising and saddening appeasement proposed by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in its so-called 'Pyongyang Appeal' last October.

The WCC let down millions of people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War with its brazen refusal to speak out about their suffering, and it has done it again.

Their statement called on people to resist "the confrontational misuse of human rights", avoid "the promotion of enemy images" and lift sanctions. It presented North Korea as a victim of Western aggression, albeit one that is "visibly advancing, demonstrating great resilience and self-reliance".

The WCC and their representatives completely failed to say anything about the suffering of the North Korean people, ignored the UN's inquiry completely, and shamefully rejected the idea that Christians are subjected to the most brutal persecution.

While we would agree with some of their recommendations for engagement and indeed have advocated as much, human rights should always be at the centre of any engagement. We cannot turn a blind eye to crimes against humanity.

Seventy years on from the Nuremberg trials, we are facing the need for something comparable. The last surviving prosecutor in Nuremberg, Benjamin Ferencz, recounted in a recent BBC interview how he was dispatched to the Nazi concentration camps to gather evidence. "The preparation was that we had a report," he said, which described people walking as "skeletons" in a "work camp". His job, he said, "was to get in there, get the evidence, and get the hell out of there as fast as possible."

Justice Kirby has done the modern-day equivalent, with one key difference - he was unable, due to the completely inaccessible nature of North Korea's prison camps, to gather first-hand evidence. He has done the next best thing - compiled hundreds' of eyewitness testimony.

Five days after the UN inquiry's report was published we co-authored an article in which we argued that "for this to be simply another shocking report, which is then left to gather dust on a shelf ... would be nothing short of a tragedy".

A year ago, we co-authored an article arguing that we must ensure that the UN inquiry's report "does not sit as a historic text on academics' shelves, but instead serves as a policy manual for imminent implementation". A year on, we reiterate that plea. We hope that by 2017, further reiteration will be unnecessary.

Jose Ramos-Horta is former President of Timor-Leste and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK).